Book One of the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles takes the reader to Manassas, Virginia. The year is 1861 and the first major battle of the Civil War is about to take place. The ferocity and carnage at Bull Run will shatter any illusions of a quick victory by either Union or Confederate forces and usher in the protracted four-year struggle that will literally tear the country apart.
Few authors can so vividly bring to life what that first battle between two untested armies must have been like. The horrors of actual combat had not yet registered with the men who would face each other that day. Both sides had drilled and played at warfare, but few had any concept of what it would be like when the artillery shells and minnie balls began to tear their ranks apart. Some fled in terror. Some found the courage to stand their ground even in the face of certain death. Most wept and invoked God or called on their mothers for consolation. Countless numbers cried out in pain or had their lives snuffed out suddenly. One moment they were alive, the next they lay dead or were blown to bits missing arms and legs, no longer even distinguishable as a human being. Bernard Cornwell puts the reader inside this chaos and makes you see, smell, and feel what war entails.
Of course, to be truly effective, his vivid account of battle would not have the desired impact upon readers unless they identified with the people involved. Cornwell gives us flesh and blood characters, some historical, some fictional, that we care about. In particular, it is the story of Nate Starbuck, an impetuous young man who enlists to fight on behalf of the Confederate cause even though he comes from Boston, Massachusetts. Nate has been raised by an abolitionist father and educated to become a minister himself, but he rebels against his structured and scripted life. He falls in love with a young woman who jilts him for another man, finds himself at the mercy of a Yankee-hating mob, is rescued by a wealthy Southern aristocrat, and in gratitude volunteers to serve in the “Faulconer legion” against his own kind. Nate struggles with his decision to take up arms against the Stars & Stripes, is conflicted morally by the temptations of the flesh and his abandonment of the pulpit, the disgrace his actions have brought upon his family, and his allegiance to a vain power-hungry rescuer with visions of glory.
I often turn to Bernard Cornwell when I look to read good historical fiction, and Rebel fulfills that need. My reservation, however, when picking up one of his novels is that few are stand alone books. Rebel is the first in another series that includes The Saxon Tales, The Richard Sharpe Series, and The Grail Quest Series. All are compelling and from time to time I return to each. It’s just that there are so many books on my “to read” list.
It’s a nice problem to have!